MONTREAL (Reuters) – The province of Quebec, worst hit in Canada by the coronavirus, began gradually reopening its economy on Monday but pushed back plans for a restart in the city of Montreal, citing health concerns.
Quebec is allowing stores with an outside entrance for customers to serve shoppers, but that excludes Montreal, Canada’s second-largest city.
It is joining some other provinces, like Manitoba, in taking steps to reopen the economy.
Although Quebec makes up 24% of the Canadian population, it accounts for 54% of the country’s coronavirus cases and 60% of the deaths. Canada has so far reported 59,844 positive diagnoses and 3,766 deaths from the respiratory illness.
Most Quebec cases have occurred in seniors’ residences and among the elderly, and Premier Francois Legault says the time is right to gradually lift restrictions.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged caution as provincial governments balance the needs of the economy and public health.
“We still need to be extremely careful, not just for our seniors but for everyone around us,” he told reporters.
The planned reopening of Montreal’s non-essential stores was delayed to May 18 from May 11 because there were too few hospital beds to cope with a possible surge in new cases, Quebec’ premier said.
“The situation is under control in the rest of Quebec,” Legault told a briefing.
Store owners in the city of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, about 40 km (25 miles) southeast of Montreal, saw a rebound in demand from shoppers, who were directed by staff to handwashing and sanitizing stations.
Julie Gregoire said staff at her furniture store donned plastic visors when greeting about 80 customers, a higher number than usual.
“It’s very busy this morning,” she said by phone.
While high schools and colleges will remain shut, elementary schools will reopen on May 11 for most of the province, and May 19 in Montreal.
Quebec’s English-language school boards, which serve a minority of students in the predominantly French-speaking province, have clashed with Legault’s government over concerns that it is too early to go back to class.
Legault told reporters that school boards must comply with government plans, although attendance is optional.
Trudeau appeared uncertain when asked by public broadcaster Radio Canada whether he would allow his children to go back to school if he lived in Quebec.
(Writing by David Ljunggren; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Peter Cooney)